Without revealing too much – just know this topic is really close to my heart. So, I reached out for advice from a trusted friend. Sissy Goff – author, speaker, counselor. I am so grateful she agreed to sharing her thoughts on this topic today. And I AGREE that anxiety in an epidemic right now. I have seen it in all over first grade classes and second grade classes. And it doesn’t seem normal or fair to me. So, let’s discuss it. Let’s pray. You are not alone. I asked her to speak directly to moms of girls, but this issue is certainly not limited to girls. – Courtney
Learning How We Can Help Our Anxious Kids
by Sissy Goff
Anxiety has become a childhood epidemic in our country. In the last few years, I have seen it rises exponentially in the lives of school-aged girls. They’re afraid of throwing up. They’re afraid of something happening to one of their parents. They’re afraid of spending the night out. They’re afraid of going upstairs to take a shower by themselves.
Some degree of childhood fear is normal…expected, even. We recently wrote a blog about the normal phases of fear children pass through. In it, we quote Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, which happens to be the Daystar staff’s favorite book on the subject.
In response to a growing ability to differentiate familiar faces (parents) from unfamiliar, stranger anxiety (clinging and crying when a stranger approaches) develops around 7-9 months and typically resolves by end of first year.
As a healthy attachment to parents grows, separation anxiety (crying, sadness, fear of desertion upon separation) emerges around one year and improves over the next 3 years, resolving in most children by the end of kindergarten. As children’s worlds expand, they may fear new and unfamiliar situations, and real and imagined dangers from big dogs, to spiders, to monsters. Children from age 3-6 are trying to master what is real and what is not, and until this is resolved, may have difficulty with costumed characters, ghosts, and supernatural beings. While trying to master fears of what could be they may struggle with the dark, the basement, closets, and under the bed. As a child learns how to manage and put aside these fears, their ability to sleep alone will be secured.
School Aged Children:
Each year, with access to new information, children begin to fear real world dangers–fire drills, burglars, storms, illness, or drugs. With experience, they learn that these risks can exist as remote rather than imminent dangers. In middle school, growing importance of social status leads to social comparisons and worries about social acceptance. Concerns about academic and athletic performance, and social group identification are normal. Learning about various physical and mental health diseases in school may lead to some temporary concerns about risk and safety. Teenagers continue to be focused on social acceptance, but with a greater concern for finding a group that reflects their chosen identity. Concerns about the larger world, moral issues and their future success are common.”
Notice the phrase “resolves itself.”
Typical childhood fears do just that…they resolve themselves. Kids grow out of them.
A child who has anxiety has what we call “looping thoughts.” Whereas you or I might worry about a storm or a disease, the thought comes in and then passes through our minds. Children with anxiety get fixated on that thought, much like a roller coaster that only has one loop. It goes over and over in their minds, to the point that it limits their ability to function and just “be a kid.”
If you suspect that your child might have this type of anxiety, contact a professional. You need someone to provide your child and you support as they walk through the healing process. The great news is that, while childhood anxiety is highly prevalent today, it is also highly treatable. Call your church. Talk to your friends. Find a trusted counselor in the area—in other words, don’t just trust google. Talk to people who have seen this counselor. Meet him or her yourself. Make sure it’s a good fit for your family and your child. And, in the meantime, pick up a copy of Tamar Chansky’s book.
If you suspect that your child may be in the more typical worry phase or just from time to time have a little anxiety that doesn’t debilitate her functioning, here are some things you can do:
1) Talk to her.
Find out what it is she’s afraid of. Many childhood fears are irrational. I counseled an 8 year-old girl who had anxiety attacks every time her mom was late picking her up from school. I initially thought she might be afraid that her mom had been hurt on the way to get her. Instead, she was afraid that her mom was buying “junk food” at McDonald’s which mean she didn’t care about their nutrition which meant they would all get sick and die. Irrational, looping thoughts. We can’t help a child logically work through their fears until we get to the root of them.
2) Help her blood flow shift.
When we are acting rationally and reasonably, blood flow is flowing throughout our brains. We are thinking largely with our frontal lobes, which help us manage our emotions and use logical reasoning. When we are anxious, our blood flow shifts. It moves to the amygdala in our brain, which dictates a fight or flight response. In those moments, we’re reacting instead of acting. We’re not choosing behavior—which is why your 9 year-old daughter has screaming fits when she’s anxious. As silly as it may feel, deep breathing and other basic calming exercises help. Teach your daughter to take deep breaths. Have your son imagine his safe place. The first thing I typically do with an anxious child is have them choose a Bible verse about anxiety and memorize it. Then, I have them say the verse over and over to themselves. The repetition calms them, much like meditation-and they’re also hiding God’s word in their hearts at the same time!
3) Give her an opportunity to talk about it when she’s calmed down—and then move on.
Don’t increase her tendency to dwell on the issue. Coping skills all involve expressing our emotions and then taking that energy to something healthy. Have her go for a walk. Read a book. Write in her journal. Draw a picture. Play with your dog. I have the girls I counsel come up with a “Worry List” of coping skills they hang in their room and know to look to whenever they become anxious.
4) Let her know she’s not alone—and that she’s normal.
All children worry. Nothing is wrong with her. You worry sometimes, too. But don’t displace your worries onto her. One of the biggest predictors of anxiety in children is anxiety in adults—aka, their parents. You know what it feels like to talk to someone who is really anxious. It silently seeps over to you and you find yourself feeling anxious, as well. Kids are perceptive and will catch on to your anxiety. Have your own worry list. Don’t be afraid to get help for yourself, if you need to. You and she will feel much calmer and more peaceful for it.
5) Ask her what she can do to help the situation that makes her worry.
We want to empower kids. When we always step in and fix the problem, they don’t believe they’re capable. Ask her what she wants to do. What is her plan? How can you help—rather than how can you do it for her? She’ll feel more confidence in your confidence in her ability.
6) Believe in her strength—out loud.
Tell her when you’re proud of her. Sing songs like “Brave,” “Roar”, and “Overcomer” in the car with her on the way to an anxiety-producing situation. Tell her how much you believe in her. Point out when she’s brave. And strong. She may be surprised. But she sees herself as you see her—and needs you to remind her of who she can be. We tell kids often that courage doesn’t exist in the absence of fear, but in the presence of it.
7) Teach her to boss that worry brain back!
We talk with kids about their “smart brain” versus their “worry brain.” The worry brain tells them they’re not capable. The goal is too hard to make. That friend would never want to come over and spend the night. Something terrible is going to happen. You know what your worry brain tells you. We want to teach them to have a voice that’s stronger than the worry brain. With boys, we tell them to have their “smart brain” (their rational brain) bully that worry brain back. With girls, we use the word “boss”—they love having permission to be bossy.
I’m seeing a little girl right now who is afraid of tornadoes. She has learned to say to herself, “That tornado is not going to get me. My parents are watching the news. They’re protecting me. We have a safe place to go. I’m going to be okay. Worry brain, you need to just stop talking.” She’s learned to use her own voice to reassure herself and feels empowered in the process.
8) Have fun.
Don’t let her take herself too seriously. Laugh together. Play together. Children with anxiety sometimes can live in an intense state that perpetuates the anxiety. They can be perfectionistic. Mess up in front of them. Make a mess with them. Read great books like “In this House, We Will Giggle” that help you learn to enjoy your children…for the sake of enjoyment. Again, they believe they are who you believe they are. When you see them as enjoyable, they are. When you see them as capable, they are. When you see them as strong and brave and the delightful little people God has made them to be, they rise to the occasion.
9) Lastly, pray for and with them.
Help them know that you believe God is big enough to handle all of their worries. They’re never alone. And that He mighty to save…in all things and all situations. He loves and delights in them more than they could ever imagine and will always take good care of them. They can be brave in the midst of that kind of love. So can we.
More from Sissy Goff at Raising Boys and Girls.